time lapse

Driving around today, my brain wandered — like it does — and this time it wandered onto the topic of time elapsing in fiction.

Twenty-seven years go by between the beginning and ending of In Ashes Lie. I noticed, while working on that book, how few models I had for stories like that: even on a series level, genre fiction tends toward plots that zoom by much more quickly. It’s a function of the type of stories we tell; lit-fic may explore one person’s growth over their lifetime, the gradual change of their relationship with a family member or whatever, but fantasy and SF usually feature a more immediate conflict, one which must be resolved soon or the consequences will be dire.

I think one of the things that endears Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald-Mage trilogy to me, unexpectedly, is the way it breaks that model. Sure, in the first book Vanyel is an angsty teenager with incredible power — you could so turn that into an anime without half-trying — but when he shows up in the second installment, it’s twelve years later and he’s an actual adult. One with responsibilities and experience, who’s grown into his power and discovered what problems it can’t solve for him. I don’t know what the causal order was, whether the time-lapse created the Stefan plot or the Stefan plot required the time-lapse, but I honestly think the passage of those years is what redeems the series from being purely standard-issue crackfic. The changes with Jervis and Withen always struck me as particularly satisfying, and I think it’s because they aren’t sudden conversions. The moment of transformation may be sudden, but it’s years in the making, as both characters see what kind of man Vanyel has grown up to be, and weigh that against the prejudices they began with. Likewise, I much more readily buy Vanyel as the legendary Herald-Mage half the Collegium’s afraid of, because half the Collegium’s too young to remember his days as a snot-nosed brat. It’s harder to make that kind of role pay off believably in the short term.

But the tradeoff, of course, is that you lose the sense of conflict immediacy if you have years flying by. Also, you can (paradoxically) get away with either an essentially static character, or one who suddenly undergoes a major change of heart, if only a month or two elapses within the story. If a decade passes, on the other hand, you have to find ways to show the effect of that on your protagonist and those around her, and those effects will be both small and gradual-large. It’s all the challenge of writing an adult with a real history behind him, plus the challenge of showing that history in progress.

So who are some authors that do this, and do it well? I don’t mean stories like the Wheel of Time, where maybe a year or two has gone by but it’s all continuous plot; I’m looking for books or series that leap over intervening spans to show you a real percentage of a character’s life. Fantasy and science fiction books, specifically — I know lit-fic does this a lot, but it just doesn’t hold my interest.

0 Responses to “time lapse”

  1. kendokamel

    I’m not sure if it’s exactly along the same lines, but Les Miserables spanned about 16 years over the course of the (unabridged) book. (35 if you count all of Valjean’s time in prison.)

    • Marie Brennan

      Somewhere, is twitching . . . .

      (She read the unabridged Les Mis in, like, eighth grade. Still has PTSD, poor thing. <g>)

      • kurayami_hime

        The summer before 8th grade, actually

        YES I AM.


        I almost replied when I first saw the comment. I refrained, but only just.


  2. mercwriter

    Thank you for this–it’s very timely (sorry O:))… since I’m working on a novel that, for the first half, covers a span of almost ten years, and I’d love to see a list of fantasy that does this as well. *follows the comments now in hopes of a reading list*

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s remarkably rare, isn’t it? Sometimes you get a time-lapse of somebody’s childhood for the intro chapters, but aside from that, it really doesn’t seem to be common.

  3. mr_earbrass

    This is something that’s been on my mind a lot recently as well–the new one I’m putting to bed spans almost 40 years, though the bulk of it only takes twenty or so…still a big jump from my last one, which took place over all of 12 months. I think with the next one I’ll limit myself to a month, maybe a week.

    I think part of what allows me to play around with time so much is that I have very little interest in plots that involve the fate of all that is good in the world and much prefer stories about smaller scale struggles–the personal cataclysm versus the global one. I could ramble on and on about why I prefer these sorts of stories but that’s all superfluous to the point you make about a lot of fantasy dealing with imminent doooooooom, the clock’s a tickin’ and the heroes have to race for the taste, etc. versus stories where the reader can be reasonably confidant the world will be there tomorrow even if a character isn’t. The issue of conflict immediacy was and still is heavy on my mind of late, so this is a very welcome post indeed in terms of shaking the branches of my own braintree. Thanks!

    In terms of books I like that do the lifetime-long novel well Eco’s Baudalino is a prime example, though it might be on the lit-fic side for you–I don’t put much stock in the genre vs. literature distinction myself, and if you haven’t read it it’s an amazing novel. Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees would be another great example, though it’s another one that would be more likely to end up in “Fiction” rather than “Fantasy” at the library.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m not interested in policing the boundary between lit-fic and genre, but there is a degree of difference in reader expectations, and strategies that work for a more mainstream novel probably wouldn’t fly with your average fantasy reader. Even if it isn’t The Fate of the World at stake, the conflict is usually expected to be urgent.

      Which might explain why so many examples of fantasy politics are kind of flimsily done. Real politics don’t happen in the course of weeks; they build over months and years and lifetimes. But most novels don’t really allow for that kind of operational scale.

      (Sorry, hit “post” too soon; here’s the rest of the comment.)

      I think with the next one I’ll limit myself to a month, maybe a week.

      Heh — I hear you. After Ashes, I was so done with complicated politics and decades going by. I have at least one other book in my queue that will be of that sort, but I’d like a good long break before I attempt it.

  4. rj_anderson

    I jumped fourteen years between my first and second books, so that in the second book we see the (then) sixteen-year-old heroine of Book 1 as a thirty-year-old. Even though the constraints of YA lit necessitated that she not be the protagonist of that second book, I did my best to put as much of her into the story as I could — as an active participant and not just a boring old authority figure.

    I must cravenly admit that I enjoyed writing Knife even more as an adult than I did when she was a teenager, because I could still use all the most dynamic and interesting aspects of her character while giving her a confidence and maturity that would have been less plausible or even palatable at a younger age.

    As for whether I did it well… it’s not my place to judge. But I certainly had fun doing it. 🙂

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m a giant sucker for books or series that include the main characters from a previous work — especially if it’s YA, because then the young ‘uns of yesteryear can be the grownups of today. Tamora Pierce has made me incredibly happy on this front.

      Also J.K. Rowling, though it isn’t quite the same thing, since the Marauders aren’t actually the protagonists of their own series. It just seems that way, since she gave them such a detailed background.

      • green_knight

        The problem with the Marauders is that their story would have been indefinitely cooler to read – for one thing, they’re much more accomplished wizards, and I’m certain their experiments must have gone wrong from time to time.

        And I actually think that Harry Potter _doesn’t_ work on a strictly HP level: the first books read young, the last ones are broody and violent and clearly written for a different age group. No-one I know likes all of them, and I can see the target audience of the first few being very disappointed. (As was I, but for reasons of craft, mostly).

        • Marie Brennan

          I think the sales figures prove your second para wrong. 🙂 One of the fascinating things about the HP series (which I should have thought of as a great example of time-lapsing) is that its target audience grew up with it. Ten years went by between the first book and the last; the kids who were Harry’s age when the series started were in college when it ended, and probably much more interested in broody and violent things than they had been in the beginning.

          And I do know people who like all of them. Usually it’s despite their flaws — because certainly they do have flaws — but it’s possible to appreciate the different books for the different things they are, even though most people end up having a preference for one bit or another.

          The Marauders are, I think, much cooler to an adult audience (as you say, they’re accomplished), but not to the kids-to-teenagers who were always the target demographic of the series. There’s a reason stories about youngsters discovering their powers and their place in the world never go out of fashion: there’s always a new generation ravenous for exactly that pattern.

          • green_knight

            I bought all of them – in hardcover, even – but I bought 6 & 7 out of habit, because everybody was talking about them, and I wanted to read them myself before being bombarded with spoilers. That doesn’t equal liking. And equally, I haven’t heard anyone being exited about the missing two films… people might still see them, but not with the kind of dedication and excitement preserved for the earlier ones.

            As for the audience growing up – that only works if you assume that the audience starts with the publication of the book. Someone who starts reading today is likely to read them in quick succession – which means either the early ones will be too young or the later ones too broody.

            And since we see the glimpses of the Marauders _at school_, I’d say they would have been equally as tantalising to the target audience – the big Voldemort conflict would not have been solveable, but if he’d been beaten back soundly, you could create a satisfactory ending.

          • Marie Brennan

            The excitement will slack off for the films, yes, but not (I think) because vast numbers of people are that profoundly disengaged from the later story; instead it’s because the story is done, and anybody who’s chomping at the bit to see what happens next can go to the bookstore and find out. This is substantially different from the days when the movies were a way to feed the fan-brain while waiting for the next book to come out.

            And again, there are definitely people who liked 6 and 7, and who are excited about the films. Your mileage obviously differs, but those people do exist, and in substantial numbers. Otherwise the movie last year would have been much less successful.

            As for the audience growing up – that only works if you assume that the audience starts with the publication of the book. Someone who starts reading today is likely to read them in quick succession – which means either the early ones will be too young or the later ones too broody.

            I was speaking of the core of its target demographic, which is only a tiny subset of the people who actually read the series. If the young-ness of the early books was really that big of an obstacle, you wouldn’t have millions of adults reading (and loving) the series. As for the later books being too broody, well, that probably just means kids will pick them up at the point they’re ready for it. None of which takes away from the fact that this is the only series I’m aware of which was internally structured and externally distributed on a time-scale that allowed it to mature alongside a group of its readers. That’s kind of an awesome thing, I think.

            And since we see the glimpses of the Marauders _at school_, I’d say they would have been equally as tantalising to the target audience – the big Voldemort conflict would not have been solveable, but if he’d been beaten back soundly, you could create a satisfactory ending.

            Most of the Voldemort stuff appears to have happened after they were out of school. You could do a series about the Order of the Phoenix (which could be fabulous, but possibly less interesting to kids), or you could do one about them at school (certainly they got up to enough hijinks) — but in the latter case they wouldn’t be the “accomplished” wizards you called them before. They’d be teenagers, just as Harry et al. are, with their own variants on the concerns of teenaged life. I don’t know that the result in that cause would be “infinitely cooler” than the characters Rowling chose to write about.

  5. mindstalk

    Bujold? We see Miles (briefly) at 5, 18, and 30, and various points in between, plus Cordelia at 33 and 63, though the latter is her in Miles’s (or Mark’s) story, not her own per se.

    Brust’s Vlad has spanned some years by now, at least 18-28, with flashbacks to 16 and 11.

    Brust’s other big books… meet Khaavren at 100 or 500, I forget, then see him 500 years after, then 250 years later with a family, though the focus shifts to his son.

    A bunch of Discworld characters have had some modest room to grow in: Vimes, Carrot, Magrat, Agnes, Tiffany, Detritus.

    Anime: TTGL, Nanoha.

    The first half of The Hero and the Crown is “Aerin’s unhappy childhood and growing up”, which strikes me as better done than the romance (in multiple sense) of the second half. Deerskin has some range too.

    • Marie Brennan

      Bujold came to mind; the Miles Vorkosigan books have been on my To Read pile for years now, but I had the impression they covered a largeish span of his life. Haven’t read Brust (failed to get into the first one, should give it another try), and my Discworld reading has been rather hopscotch. I will keep those in mind if I find myself working on a series of that kind, or just with a hankering for that kind of story.

    • Anonymous

      One book that comes to mind is SF and is practically a tour de force of time jumping writing: Katie Waitman’s The Merro Tree. Her first book, too. We have the main character as adult, as kid, as teen, as Master… all jumbled up – as I remember it – in the narrative. It is emphatically not chronological! But it works. She seems to have fallen out of sight, haven’t seen but one other book from her and it wasn’t nearly as interesting.

      Elaine T.

  6. sarcastibich

    I don’t know about doing it well, but Jonathan Stroud’s “The Bartimaeus Trilogy” starts with the young boy main character as a young teen. By the third book he’s in his mid-to-late-twenties. Its a cute series, and probably at the local library.

  7. akashiver

    Robin Hobb. Mind you, she sort of cheats by revisiting characters in separate trilogies, and those characters don’t necessarily mature that much. Still, the gap between A’s Quest and Fool’s Errand is 15 years.

    Brust’s Taltos series, for better or worse.

    Card’s _Ender’s Game_ vs. _Speaker for the Dead_. Like Hobb, Card deals with major time lapsing by keeping his character fairly isolated, so you don’t have to catch up on his new drinking buddies or the 16 kids he adopted when you weren’t looking.

    George R.R. Martin has done some time leaping too, but presumably it’s continuous plot.

    Jones’ Chrestomanci series, though we change perspectives, so it’s kinda cheating. David Gemmell’s also done the prequel trick, starting off with an old warrior and then following that book with one about him when he’s younger.

    Of course, comic books (and comic related stories) do the most with this. Graphic novels like The Dark Knight or tv shows like (ugh) Smallville assume that there’s a story to tell about a well-known character at *this particular point in his life,* and that story may have very little connection to other plotlines. But it’s a different situation: you’ve got different authors playing what are, in effect, variations on an iconic character. Plus, if the audience doesn’t like this version of old-geezer-Batman, they can rest assured that another, completely different story about old-guy-Batman will come out; the character can develop within particular stories, but there will never be a sense of how this character develops over the course of his lifetime except in the broadest strokes.

    To be honest, I think one of the reasons authors prefer not to skip around too much is the problem of introducing new characters. In real life, people’s social circles change a lot. Your friends today aren’t necessarily the friends you had five years ago, and even for people who stay constant, your relationships with them change depending on age and circumstances.

    Imagine picking up a Superman comic where all of a sudden he’s dating a different chick, has a different job, lives in a different place and has a different set of friends and enemies. Also, he’s now got diabetes & loves watching Jersey Shore. That’s a lot for a reader to catch up on & that’s why most authors who use “time lapse” cheat by keeping the original cast in every book.

    I suspect you’re running into a problem with that in this series because fairies live longer than humans, damnit, so keeping the same cast around isn’t an option.

    • Marie Brennan

      I kind of feel like comics both do and don’t do this, simultaneously — yeah, you have your OldGeezer!Batman stories, but all the ones I’m aware of just kind of start with that as their premise, and then proceed to do the usual “my hero doesn’t age” thing. Kind of like how Nancy Drew has been eighteen for decades now. Except that in the case of Batman and other superheroes, you can try to daisy-chain different writers’ narratives together in order to make something like a life chronology out of them.

      To be honest, I think one of the reasons authors prefer not to skip around too much is the problem of introducing new characters. In real life, people’s social circles change a lot. Your friends today aren’t necessarily the friends you had five years ago, and even for people who stay constant, your relationships with them change depending on age and circumstances.

      <has English Civil War flashbacks>

      Seriously, that was one of the most structurally broken things I had to accept in writing Ashes: had anybody sane been writing that history, Pym would have been the Big Bad, or else Cromwell would have been important from the start. Instead Pym kicks it during the war, and then Ireton’s the real troublemaker during the whole trial thing, and Cromwell doesn’t become majorly important until some time into the Commonwealth (by which point Ireton’s vanished from our narrative), and he doesn’t even survive to see the Restoration . . . seriously, who wrote this shit? Don’t they understand we need some continuity, here?

      I suspect you’re running into a problem with that in this series because fairies live longer than humans, damnit, so keeping the same cast around isn’t an option.

      Well, yes and no. I’m trying, as much as I can, to treat these books as stand-alones, because from the mortal perspective that’s pretty much what they are. It’s more the in-text time-jumping that I’m grappling with — or rather have grappeled with, since aging Antony from 1639 to 1665 was really the thing for which I had few models. Lune et al. are more like the superheroes: they stay mostly the same, even if it’s a hundred years later.

  8. thespisgeoff

    Melanie Rawn and Terry Brooks tend to do the “skip a generation or nine with each trilogy” thing – Rawn in her Dragon Prince/Dragon Star trilogies, and Brooks in every iteration of Shannarra ever.

    Then, of course, you have Frank Herbert; Dune to Dune Messiah, Children of Dune to God Emperor of Dune…

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s a little different when you’re switching generations between trilogies, but there are some similarities, yeah — especially when you have characters recurring as the mentors or whatever to the new class of protagonists.

  9. aswego

    I remember, years ago, being completely amazed by Judith Tarr’s Avaryan Rising. The protag of book #2 was the child of the protag of book #1 and had an extremely different outlook/worldview, far beyond I AM TEENAGER, I MUST REBEL. The way I remember it, the narrative was convincing that this was a better path, though the other had had its day.

    • Marie Brennan

      That sounds interesting, yeah. (Especially since one of in my back-burner ideas, the protagonist of #1 is overseeing a group of children that become the main characters of #2 and #3.)

      • aswego

        Then I’ll add that maybe I shouldn’t have said extremely different, now that I think about it further. Perhaps it’s more that one of the big questions was: what happens when rebel #1 succeeds at his goal and gets to really impose his vision over time? Especially when #1 is charismatic and has a strong view of how things “should” be plus a desire to make that happen, rather than someone who relaxes into the luxury of being the new establishment? And, of course, there’s the idea of #1 being a necessary stepping stone for #2. At the time, it seemed really fresh after “good guys” tending to walk in each other’s footsteps.

        Good luck with the projects!

  10. diatryma

    I like reading some things like this; I really like characters who have histories together or separately, and this is one way to get that. I like that Bujold has character history she hasn’t written for Miles’ parents, even though I also like reading what is written.

    I don’t like special-child books as much. I usually end up thinking, “Miles Freaking Vorkosigan shows up at SEVENTEENish, who do you think you are being all ten?”

    • Marie Brennan

      <lol> Now I’m imagining Dunnett writing about some precocious fourteen-year-old. I suspect I would smack that character down on the grounds that even Lymond wasn’t awesome so early.

      • diatryma

        Well, he probably was– you mentioned back-calculating his age (I dread April, because in April, I turn twenty-six)– but the awesome he was is more awesome because it’s in backstory. Bujold gets this.

        • Marie Brennan

          Off-screen awesomeness is a good example of “tell, don’t show” sometimes being the better rule. I’m thinking particularly of one throwaway sentence in The Ringed Castle that boils down to, “what with one thing and another, all of them got to Russia,” and how much more badass the men of St. Mary’s look because she doesn’t spend a chapter telling you about their adventures.

  11. Anonymous

    On the sci-fi side of things, Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star and the sequel Judas Unchained (which is really not a sequel at all, it’s the second half of one monstrous book) cover several decades at least. On the one hand, they’ve got rejuvenation in the world, so mortality isn’t a driving factor in maturity. But on the other, he gets to deal quite a lot with what the passage of time means when you’re essentially immortal.

    • Marie Brennan

      That sounds very cool. (Especially since immortality is one of those tropes that’s overused in a shallow way, but I adore books that actually examine it meaningfully.)

      • Anonymous

        He mostly focuses on the medical and societal impacts. It’s expensive, which takes lots of people out of the running, and there are still quite a few limitations from a physical standpoint: going through rejuvenation takes you out of society for many months, and your brain is still only capable of storing the same amount of data, so there’s this whole system of storing or deleting old memories as necessary. That pair of books is one of my favorites.

  12. pentane

    _In Conquest Born_ by CS Friedman.

    Also, you reminded me of a trope that I hate. Characters travel together for a month, then are in love and have meaningful relationship.

    • Marie Brennan

      Characters travel together for a month, then are in love and have meaningful relationship.

      This is one of the reasons I bounce off many romance books: they often (though not always) have a very short timeline from meeting to true love, and I have a hard time believing it. (On anything more than a hormonal level, anyway, and I don’t find hormones terribly moving.)

      I can sort of buy an intense emotional relationship depending on what the characters have been through. The example leaping to mind here, though I’ll try to be non-spoilery in case you haven’t read it, is Phedre and Joscelin in Kushiel’s Dart; the two of them know each other for only a short time before they undergo some trials that very plausibly leave the two of them profoundly attached. But even then, I’m pretty sure it’s more than a month.

  13. midnight_sidhe

    Jennifer Fallon’s Wolfblade trilogy does this; her central character starts off as a spoiled naive teenage girl and ends up a powerful woman with adult kids.

    Kathryn Rusch’s Fey series does this too. At some point the original protagonists’ kids become the centre of attention, but they’ve been featured since they were born; there isn’t a sharp generational shift (although they do age a lot between the end of the Fey series and the beginning of The Black Throne duology that follows).

    Phedre from the first Kushiel trilogy is in her thirties by the end.

    Eight years go by between the beginning and end of Kate Forsyth’s Witches of Eileanan series; I don’t know if that’s enough for your purposes or not.

    Jennifer Roberson’s Cheysuli series shifts generations, but not necessarily abruptly; I think you do get a sense of them maturing.

    I second Melanie Rawn. Her Exiles trilogy doesn’t exactly shift generations; the main characters from the first book are the main characters in the second, just older. But I never know whether to recommend Exiles because it’s been thirteen years since the second book was released, and as far as I know, the third hasn’t appeared yet.

    A lot of time passes in between the second and third books of Rebecca Bradley’s Lady in Gil, and the original main character’s son becomes the narrator, but the original main character is still featured prominently, I think.

    Touchstone and Sabriel are still prominent characters in the second two books of Garth Nix’s Abhoreson series.

    I think Madeleine L’Engle’s characters grow up, too, but I haven’t read all of those.

    • Marie Brennan

      Good list — thanks!

      (And according to this, no, the Rawn hasn’t been published yet. Wow, and we thought Martin had problems!)

      • midnight_sidhe

        You’re welcome!

        [The third volume has been intermittently listed on Amazon for the better part of a decade. A few years ago now, she posted on her website (I think it was her website?) that she was about to start the third volume but had kind of forgotten where the trilogy was going(!), and invited her readers to remind her. I think that was when I abandoned all hope.]

  14. sartorias

    Well, I did it in my Inda series–“well” is for readers to say, not me.

    • Marie Brennan

      There is nothing wrong with propping yourself as an example of the trope. 🙂

      • sartorias

        There;s bit difference between claiming to do it, and claiming to do it well.

        I offered mine as an example of the first, as the cook is the last one to trust about the taste of the soup, I find.

  15. kleenestar

    I can think of LOTS of science fiction that does this – the two examples that come immediately to mind are most Alastair Reynolds books (squee!) and the Michael Flynn Firestar series (which gets much better from beginning to end, so it’s worth sticking with).

    Jan Siegel’s got a fantasy series where the characters age significantly between books – I think the series is called The Dragon Charmer?

    • Marie Brennan

      Now I’m wondering if it’s more common in SF than fantasy. I’d need to define my terms much more specifically, though, before I could answer that.

      (My gut guess is that it might be, simply because there’s a recognized type of SF that does this kind of thing — because the point of the story is to examine a society or whatever — and I don’t think that type exists to the same extent in fantasy.)

  16. Anonymous

    Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price quartet is supposed to be structured around one character’s life exactly that way… although don’t know how successfully, since I haven’t read it. I have hopes David Anthony Durham’s Acacia series might turn out that way too.

    (Very glad to see the other suggestions! I used to work in life history research, so I love reading this sort of thing….)

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